For over a millennium, the network of trails known as the Kumano Kodō (熊野古道) have attracted people from all levels of society on pilgrimages to the sacred sites of Kii Peninsula. Located in the rugged and mountainous region of Japan’s largest peninsula, in Wakayama prefecture south of Osaka and the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara, the routes range from moderately easy day hikes to strenuous multi-day undertakings. Since 2004 the Kumano Kodō has been given World Heritage status, one of only two pilgrimage routes recognized by UNESCO (the other being the Santiago de Compostela in Spain and France).
While there is no official start or end point, or any prescribed hiking order, traditional pilgrimages often include visits to the three head Shintō shrines of the Kumano – the so-called Kumano Sanzan. Dotted along the routes are many small onsen (hot spring) villages where traditional inns and natural baths have for centuries rejuvenated the mind, body, and spirit of pilgrims and hikers. An established network of public transportation makes a visit to this remote region a great opportunity experience some of Japan’s spiritual roots as well as its natural beauty. The official tourism website of the Kumano Kodō is a comprehensive resource for researching and planning your trip, and I highly recommend it.
Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉), literally “Hot Water River” village, is a small hamlet located on the banks of the Oto River, a tributary of the main Kumano-gawa River. Lined with an array of ryokans (traditional inns), minshukus (family-run accommodations), and hotels, the defining attraction of the village is its unique geological feature: hot spring water bubbles from deep underground through to the riverbed. Here you can make your own onsen bath by digging into the gravel and letting the “tub” fill up with hot mineralized water. As the water is scalding hot, be sure to mix in some cold water from the river for that perfect soak.
Kumano Kodō: On the Nakahechi Route
Of the many Kumano Kodō pilgramage trails, the traditional Nakahechi route is the most popular and travelled. Spanning from the town of Kii-Tanabe on the west side of Kii Peninsula, the trail winds east through the mountainous and heavily forested heart of Kumano, and has been used extensively since the 10th century when the Japanese imperial ancestors first started the tradition.
Since we did not have the time to do the full trail (definitely for another time on a return visit), we opted for a shorter section perfect for a day hike. Starting at Hosshinmon-oji, the route follows paved roads and forest paths, undulating hills with terraced tea plantations, and small mountain villages on the way to Kumano Hongū Taisha, one of the Kumano three grand shrines. This 7-km hike is a relaxed walk suitable for all skill levels.
Kumano Kodō: The Dainichi-Goe Trail
Part of the Nakahechi route, the Dainichi-Goe trail is a short but relatively steep path that links Kumano Hongū Taisha to Yunomine Onsen village. A 2-km trail over Mount Dainichi, you climb steep steps onto a rugged trail lined with massive trees of an old-growth forest. While most people will take public transport to Yunomine Onsen, the Dainichi-Goe is a good option if you’re up for a more challenging hike – especially when the reward is a relaxing soak in one of Yunomine’s famed baths!
Possibly the most picturesque of all hot spring villages on the Kumano Kodō, Yunomine Onsen is tucked away in a small valley deep in the heart of the sacred mountains of Kii Peninsula. A small stream runs through the center of the hamlet, with traditional ryokan inns lining both sides of the water. Discovered some 1800 years ago, this is one of the oldest hot springs in Japan, and plays in important part in the Kumano pilgrimage tradition of hot-water purification.
Visitors can try onsen tamago, eggs cooked in a well of hot spring water next to the stream. A small wood cabin, Tsubo-yu, houses an onsen bath said to have magical healing properties, and is just big enough for two people. Available to the public first-come first-serve, this tiny shack is also the only onsen bath in the world that is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.